PRINT October 1998


Todd Solondz’s Happiness

THE EXPERIENCE OF CONFRONTING a work of art ideally disorganizes ones systems. Therefore it is difficult, as a critic, to organize one’s responses. Here again I display my disarray not out of careless disregard for common sense and the rules of exposition; rather, I write in a disjunct mode because Happiness, a film by Todd Solondz, has disorganized me.

Rule no. 1 of criticism: Always blame the artifact.

Happiness is one of those philosophical categories, strict and unfathomable, on which life depends but which no one understands and which no one has patented. Few have it, many want it; its elusiveness dominates.

One is authorized, in journalism, to consider a subject only if it is topical. Happiness is topical because Happiness is scheduled to be released this month after its subjects, which include pedophilia, homicide, dismemberment, vaginal and anal rape, masturbation, and suicide, caused the original distributor of the comic movie, October Films, “responding to pressure from parents Universal and Seagram” (writes Variety), to drop it. (The intrepid Good Machine picked it up.) Most topical of all in Happiness is the obscene, delicate relation between father (Dylan Baker) and son (Rufus Read)—the former resembling a televangelist, the latter a friend of Lassie.

Humor destabilizes Happiness. Pedophilia, rarely treated in mainstream artifacts, is not supposed to be funny. The scandal of Happiness is that obscenity amuses. Watching Happiness, one laughs, and doesn’t know why, and wonders if laughter is moral. I want to be moral; but I also want moral people to mind their own business, to stop rhetorically forcing hands. Happiness is a triumph of twisted rhetoric: it orates amorality, a vacuum nature loves, and the style of oration is chipper, sometimes halting, often Sophoclean.

The father in Happiness, Dr. Bill Maplewood, is a psychiatrist by vocation, a pedophile by avocation. His last name, because it seems an allusion to Robert Mapplethorpe, reminds us that perversions are often phantasms spun by jurisprudence. The son, Billy, a recent émigré from prepubescence, hasn’t yet had his first orgasm (so he confesses to the father), and thus fears that he’s not normal. He reports to Dad that his classmate Ronald Farber’s penis is eleven inches long. (Will our mayor’s moral police shut down the screening room?) The father comforts Billy: “It’s not length that counts, it’s width.” (The audience, at the screening I attended, laughed.) Billy asks whether his father has ever measured his own penis. The father says no, and then, solicitous, suggests, “Do you want me to measure it?” (Again, the audience laughed at the deadpan perversity.) I can’t figure out whether the father’s invitation is empathic or criminal. In another conversation, he offers to give Billy tips on how to masturbate. At this point in the comedy, the boy doesn’t yet know that his father is a pedophile, though we do, and thus must wonder whether these catechisms titillate him.

The film allows us momentarily to think that, despite what we know of his crimes, Dr. Maplewood is practicing first-rate parenting. I am torn between thinking that he is a louse and thinking that he is a rare soul, offering a solacing specificity of sexual prescription (it’s okay if you haven’t come; it’s okay that you’re a chubby sissy). I might have been grateful if my father had talked about masturbation with me.

When Billy says, “I’m not normal” (because he hasn’t had an orgasm), we know that the father is more deeply not “normal,” and thus we must balance two degrees of abnormality: the oddness of a slow boy and the oddness of a pedophile. We give amnesty to defectors from masculinity; pedophilia, however, is a more severe matter, probably forever outside the zone of liberal tolerance. Then why are we laughing at the spectacle of the fumbling, goodhearted, likable pedophile, as if he were a primer for the new Chaplinesque?

Like John Waters, Solondz grafts the conventions of Leave It to Beaver family portraiture onto Sadean situations. When Billy’s friend Johnny Grasso (Evan Silverberg) sleeps over one fateful night, Dr. Maplewood drugs him with a spiked tuna-fish sandwich and then rapes him; asleep at the time, the boy has no memory of the assault. Indeed, he likes Dr. Maplewood. The night after the crime, Johnny snuggles up to the rapist in the car and says, “You’re cool.” The social space of the movie theater (a Cineplex is not a killing field) makes extremes seem assimilable, hence nonlethal. Moviegoing is a cheerful experience, after all, even if the spectacle is mortifying. A theater is a communal sitz bath that one exits with a feeling of uplift, no matter what poisons circulate in the water.

One can have several different kinds of aesthetic and moral experience at the same time. One can want Johnny Grasso to eat the spiked tuna-fish sandwich so that the narrative can run its course, so that Dr. Maplewood, no more real than Dagwood, can have his way. One can desire Johnny’s brutalization as one cringes to contemplate it. But cinema is not often adept at portraying ambiguity. Sense-making is the dogma to which most media pusillanimously adhere. On some level, despite its shapely dramaturgy and flinty dialogue, Happiness doesn’t make sense. At least its morals don’t. And that is beautiful, rare sacrilege, like Warhol’s: blasphemy, to bore and confuse, to prevent the spectator from remembering what used to pass as truth.

At the end of the movie, Billy masturbates, standing on a balcony above a sunbathing woman. After Billy comes, the dog laps up the jism, and the boy makes his way to the lunch table, where the extended family is congregated. Mother kisses the dog (its tongue moist with the tyke’s love juice); triumphant, the boy announces, “I came!” This declaration addles the family, who isn’t aware that the father, now arrested, had been monitoring the boy’s journey toward orgasm. The tone of the film’s conclusion, however, is improbably mirthful and cozy.

I do not have the heart at the moment to belabor the connection between Happiness and the sexual scandal that, at the time of this writing, engulfs the White House. Trust me: there is one. It has to do with the mechanism of exposure—the sexual secret’s movement from private to public. Every interrogation of someone’s sexual behavior is an act of terror, however necessary or humane such questioning may be. Because the Oval Office is not a movie by Todd Solondz, the nation is not amused by the news that the president came, nor is it interested in hearing that any search for the “truth” of sexuality is a dangerous and deluded enterprise. The pundits saying that the president should be ashamed of himself for his sexual conduct or for his previous lies about it wouldn’t understand the serial illuminations of Happiness: everyone has a sexual secret; everyone has reason to feel ashamed about sexuality, which cannot be cleaned up, even by marriage or police; putting sexuality on trial is a mistake; everyone is a pervert and should be ashamed of himself or herself and then should laugh about it and do something intricate and artistic with it.

Every character in Happiness is a lost cause. Many are slobs. Plain people can have intense sexual feelings, although cinema hasn’t often done them justice.

I have said that Happiness is unique in its depiction of perversities as a continuum of harmless grays, but other, earlier films have obviously shaped Solondz’s casual, nonjudgmental way with loaded subjects. Happiness shows the influence of Waters, but also Mike Leigh and Eric Rohmer: one relishes the documentary intensity of the conversations, the comically extreme nature of the characters’ desires, the nonjudgmental, poker-faced portrayal of psychic and moral disorder, and the lyrical murmuring quietness of the cinematography—nothing complicated, the atmosphere of high dejection rendered as is.

Happiness is an ambitious title: it lays claim to the severest and oldest goals of art. It is not merely ironic. The film could not have been called Unhappiness. Joy, the main character, a woman whose romantic prospects degrade her, lives up to her name: she may be closest to the surprising nature of joy at the moments when she is most down. Indeed, the personae of Happiness (lard-ass murderess, milquetoast pedophile) stand on the cusp of contentment; I imagine that if they concentrate on their humiliation, they might transfigure it into cheerfulness. The film suggests that depression is a circuitous path to delight. Ordinary human unhappiness, rhythmic and repetitious, is like a toll collector: it keeps the human highway running.

Recall the last scene in Nights of Cabiria, after Giulietta Masina’s character has given all her money to a brute who abandons her. She rolls in the dirt, trying to annihilate herself, but then rejoins the human carnival and smiles serenely though without full agency into Fellini’s lens. Didn’t Thoreau, or Christ, observe that wretched people, too, can experience beatitude? Isn’t that one of the lessons taught by cameras? Photographic or cinematic exposure may not bring joy, though at least it offers an exit from the dungeon into the brightness of someone watching and paying attention.

I do not pretend to see the world, as Wilde and Genet did, in terms of exemplary humiliations and crimes that sanctify through the via dolorosa of negation, but I feel it would be a mistake to think that I can watch and comment on Happiness as if I were above the misery or immorality of its protagonists, or as if I believed that unhappiness were a temporary condition one should have the fortitude to move beyond.

Questions about happiness:

Does the audience seek happiness? Is the term “happiness” a useless, old-fashioned framing of human complexity? Should we not bother studying happiness because it is so philosophically hazy? Is happiness chemical? Are some people constitutionally happier than others? Is happiness an antirevolutionary opiate? Should it be the goal of government?

Is orgasm a happy experience? Does orgasm, with which Happiness ends, neutralize all the human unpleasantness—coupling, courtship, conquest—that precedes it? Is a solitary orgasm unhappy? Does “jouissance” have an English equivalent? Can the declaration “I came” ever be spoken by a happy person? Is a person happiest before, during, or after an orgasm? Does writing have anything to do with happiness?

Wayne Koestenbaum is a frequent contributor to Artforum.